Several times a day someone tells me one of two things. Thing one is “no worries.” And thing two is “it’s all good.” Often the same person tells me both things. Alas, when I hear “no worries,” I worry. When I hear “it’s all good,” I know it’s not.
Living in Baltimore these days is full of worries and it is often not all good. So I find myself dipping into “The Amiable Baltimoreans” by Francis F. Beirne, a restorative tonic kept in print by Johns Hopkins University Press. You don’t meet many amiable Baltimoreans these days, but they are alive and well in the pages of Beirne’s book. Black and white, Jew and gentile. They are the people of only yesterday, as Fred Allen used to call it. It is not so much that the prose soars— both H.L. Mencken and Russell Baker are better at invoking Baltimore— but that Beirne, with his collection of charming facts, is a boon companion.
“The Amiable Baltimoreans” was published in 1951— just 60 years ago— and yet the city contained within it is as remote from our time as Carthage, and as alluring as the Seven Cities of Cibola. Here was a city that made things. Here was a city that mattered. Yes, there were terrible things then. But in the world of the amiable Baltimoreans there were no worries and it was all good.
I crack open the book at random and read a passage by Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the celebrated Supreme Court justice, who once wrote a popular column called “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.” I was simply browsing when I landed upon a section titled “Gastronomical Reflections.” Here, the jaw drops (and the mouth waters) as the elder Holmes hails Baltimore as the “gastronomical metropolis of the Union.”
Beirne, who long wrote for The Evening Sun under the pen name Christopher Billopp, then launches into an epicure’s reverie, recalling great meals of the past and a city that knew how to clean its plate. He recounts a legendary Christmas Day repast of the 19th century that would stagger the most dedicated trencherman today. The breakfasts alone were fit for Caligula.
This little book does not merely make me wonder where the amiable Baltimoreans have gone and if there are any about now. It makes me long for the tables they set, and lament that it is no longer possible to savor such cuisine. The newsprints while I was dipping into Beirne were in full fustian when word came that Phillips Seafood was moving from Harborplace to the Power Plant. Phillips is not closing. It’s simply taking its crab cakes round the way. This is not a catastrophe. Tourists chiefly patronized the place. Let them amble over to the Power Plant.
A scamp might argue that there is not a single good seafood restaurant in the city and that most of the great crab houses have closed. Remember Gunning’s down in Brooklyn? With the Christmas decorations up year-round? God bless its memory. And Obrycki’s is going in November! Yowza!
I did not fall off the turnip wagon. The Inner Harbor is an expensive tract of real estate and as such it will not easily bear a restaurant other than the chain variety. On the very day I was stretched on the couch dreaming of fried chicken a la Maryland, beaten biscuits and other delicacies spoken of so tenderly by Beirne, the word came that Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. was on the way to Harborplace, further signaling dining homogenization for Baltimoreans, amiable or otherwise. It destroyed my appetite.
Writing 60 years ago, Beirne bemoaned the passing of Maryland dining traditions. He lamented that terrapin was a great rarity. Ditto canvasback ducks. He decried the loss of the beaten biscuit and Maryland rye. His roll call of vanished Baltimore eateries is especially sad.
Along the way, Beirne invokes expert witnesses— a celebrated 1879 cookbook by a Mrs. Ben Howard called “Queen of the Kitchen” and a grand dame who labored in The Sun under the nom de cuisine of Aunt Priscilla— to conjure the groaning boards of yore. Reading his book made me long for his time and the times before that, too. And it made me ravenous. I wish I were an amiable Baltimorean. Because if Mrs. Ben Howard or Aunt Priscilla told me “no worries” and “it’s all good,” I would believe them.